Dec. 2, 2003
Q. Last week you said that you had some homework to do regarding the possibility of a bowl game. Have you completed that homework and are there any opportunities for your team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Right now it looks like we have no opportunities.
Q. I was wondering what your reaction is personally, professionally, for a 9-3 football coach getting fired at Nebraska. How do you react to that when you see a coach having that kind of success in a year and being relieved of his duties?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, personally and professionally, you don’t like to see it because obviously there are some good things taking place in that program for him.
Q. How important is it, avoiding a losing season and the fact that Notre Dame could avoid having the worst five-year stretch its history?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s important but my focus is more on this year. It’s finishing out with our seniors and as we said it’s an ending to a season and a beginning to next year. So we want to finish on a positive note.
Q. Wondering if you could talk about how the quarterback position changed from the beginning of the year, maybe a fourth-year senior coming back and all of a sudden you had a freshman at the end of the year. What were your expectations at the beginning of the year and how did they played out this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our focus has always been, whether it’s a quarterback experience or inexperience, to find a way to win the football game and that’s the No. 1 thing that I’ve asked our quarterback to do for us is to help us do that.
No, the quarterback is not the reason that you lose, and sometimes it’s not the reason that you win, but he’s a major part of that. And his leadership is important, so what we ask for is that position to give us some very solid leadership and give us the play and the things we need at the right time to be successful.
Usually when you have a fourth-year player, he’s been in your system a great deal of time and we didn’t have that luxury with Carlyle Holiday. He’s basically in our system one and a half year going into his second year. We’ve had to trade limited experience for almost no experience, and therefore, I think Brady Quinn’s growth has been just fantastic throughout the year and I think you’ll see him getting better and better as we progress to the end of the year.
Q. Probably one of the thinner positions on the roster as far as number of players is quarterback. How many would you like to have ideally?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you can’t overload a position because obviously there’s only one ball and only one guy can take a snap at a time. So you would like to get to that point where you’ve got a guy in each class. We may not have that luxury, so it might necessitate that we take two quarterbacks.
Q. With the transfer of Chris Olsen and the uncertainty about Carlyle Holiday and what he’s going to play next year has that changed the recruiting philosophy for this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It does. It changes how we look at individuals in that class and what we’re able to do. If we can find the right individuals, and notice I use “right individuals”‘ you go for maybe two quarterbacks, and maybe there’s something you look at in relation to Carlyle and for next year.
Q. How would you assess recruiting at quarterback so far?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we are hanging in there, okay. I think we are on the lists of some very good players and we just need them to say yes.
Q. In the game Saturday night I noticed an awful lot of empty seats. Does that surprise you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: (Laughs). That’s a very nice curveball even though I know you threw it straight. It’s one that you’re probably better off not touching from this perspective. So I’ll defer on that question.
Q. With the win, it must make you feel great. Did everybody who was healthy get in the game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think for the most part, I think there were a couple of guys on the travel group that did not play. There may have been a freshman or two who were there for emergency reasons, the preferred stance was not to have them play if at all possible. I think everyone for the most part did play.
Q. I know you addressed this before but who calls the play?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our coordinators call the plays.
Q. Who called the punt?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I did.
Q. Can you give us a view of the game Saturday, the matchup between Syracuse and Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. 1, I think this will be a very physical contest with a team that can play great football, the team that played last weekend will not be the team that we will see. We will see Syracuse’s best football team and they will be playing their best football.
Q. Back to last week’s game and the winning margin, does that help much in recruiting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Winning helps. I think guys like to see themselves and believe that they have got an opportunity to score a lot of points and do a lot of things. So from that standpoint it does, but more than anything else, you want to see the win.
Q. On the overall recruiting situation, how do we look next year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we are hanging in there. I think we have got some key players that if we can get the right ones to fall, it will help us.
Q. Wonder if you could talk about the maturing of Julius Jones off the field and maybe on the field?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think Julius’s story I think at this point has been well documented. He seems to get better and better in each day because you see the on-field performance in terms of now having his third 200-yard rushing game this season. But the commitment that Julius made to himself, and the commitment of his family I think just speaks volumes for him. I said sometime ago that it would have been very easy for Julius to be anywhere but when he chose to come back, he wanted to comeback and complete a goal that he had set for himself and a commitment that he made to his family. To me that says that the young man has a great deal of strength to do that. And that he’s pointed himself in the right direction and I think that’s a valuable place for him and a decision for him to make.
Q. Has some of that rubbed off on your other running backs, do you think?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s hard to say but I think he’s proved himself to be a leader and I think any time you’re a leader, that there are some things that rub off on other players around you, and I would hope that would be the case.
Q. Do you feel you have someone else with his kind of potential on your roster currently?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Again I think we don’t have — I know if Julius is coming around every day because obviously the fact that he’s got three 200-yard rushing games this year, that has never been done before. So there’s some very positive things and big things that he brings to the table.
But I like Ryan Grant. I think that Julius’ presence has diminished what Ryan has done this year, but I go back and say one year ago, Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,000 yards. There are some very positive things in having Ryan Grant come back.
Q. As you go into next year, you’ll lose your left tackle, I think that’s all you’ll lose off your offensive line. Is Ryan Harris a future left tackle, and how do you make that determination of which side a guy like that ends up on?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, that’s something we’ll look at in the end of the season, how we work that combination, but he has the potential to do that, yes.
Q. What are the things that distinguishes a left tackle from a right tackle?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Oh, it could be just age. Sometimes you don’t like to put the pressure on them right off the bat so you put them on the right side, year of experience, ability to changes stances comfortably, working from that side of the field.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about Courtney Watson’s career while you’ve been here?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It has been a tremendous career in my opinion in terms of his leadership of the football team and his play on the field. I have always said that our football team is a smarter team when Courtney is on the field, with his ability to understand the offensive scheme and the defensive scheme and to get us lined up and positioned in the right place has been a very special quality. In doing the things that he’s done off the field, the time he’s spent with other people, he’s been an excellent role model for our football team.
Q. Having coached in the pros before, do you think Courtney Watson’s size is going to be an issue or do you think because of his intelligence and speed he’s going to find a good situation in the pros?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, as you know, so much of that is being selected by the right team and it being the right fit. But I think he brings all of the things to the table that will allow him to have a fine professional career.
Q. Same thing with Julius Jones. Do you think he can be a productive back at that level?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I do. I think he has all of the qualities. I think he’s a fine receiver. He is going through a stretch that he’s had a hand problem, so it’s limited the opportunities that you throw him the football. But he’s doing fine and he will do fine at the next level.
Q. D.J. Fitzpatrick going into next year, would you like to see him be a kicker or a punter rather than doing both?
COACH WILLINGHAM: My preference is not based on D.J., but my preference is to have the responsibilities met by several individuals. I’ve always felt like the leg swing is just slightly different in the two and sometimes you don’t want to get those two techniques confused.
Q. In terms of your offense, have your ideas changed from what you thought you might be able to do at the beginning of the year to now? Are you less of a passing team or is this what you thought you would try to be, a balanced offense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we are not there yet. We want to be balanced, but balance should mean that you have a slightly more passing yardage than you do rushing yardage. I think we’re getting a little bit closer to where I’d like us to be.
Q. I know a few years ago, there was a point I remember talking to a running back recruit, he felt like diversity issues on Notre Dame’s campus hurt them in his recruitment. Do you feel like those issues have been addressed while you’re here? Have you seen improvements campus-wide on those kind of issues?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve been very pleased with the position that our administration has taken in terms of addressing the diversity issues. Like most universities there’s still a long way to go.
Q. Do you expect Carlyle Holiday to return next year for a fifth year, and if so, do you think he would be in the quarterback role or more probable in another position?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, one, we are extremely hopeful that Carlyle will return because we think he can add a great deal to our football team. I have not sat down and discussed next year’s possibilities with Carlyle yet. At the conclusion of the season at some point, I will sit down and do that.
Q. You’ll probably be happy to have him back in any capacity, do you think it would be more advantageous to him and Notre Dame to play a position other than quarterback or do you have any strong feelings on that one way or the other yet?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I do, but I will wait till I talk to Carlyle before I start publicly speaking on those things. I think it would be a little unfair to him until we sat down and talk and discuss those things.
Q. I guess also Carlyle is a promising baseball player, would you have any objections if he played with a team this spring?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We usually encourage that but we have to sit down and discuss his future and make sure that we are doing the right things in all of the areas in regard to that future.
Q. I think all coaches universally agree that when you go to a Bowl game and get those extra two or three weeks worth of practice it’s extremely beneficial for a team. Not having that opportunity this year, how do you make up for that void in the practice schedule and the field time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you really can’t because the rules don’t allow you to if you’re not in a Bowl game to have practice sessions. What we have to do this winter is we have to work a lot harder to catch up the best we can. But unfortunately it doesn’t allow you to do things together as practice, the blocking technique, the running technique the passing games. Our individuals will have to do that on their own, and again, not in a team environment.
Q. With Carlyle Holiday, you want to do what’s best for him, but at some point, does what’s best for the team take precedent in a situation like that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think they will come together in his case. And of course, again, I haven’t talked to him about all of these things at this time. But I think they will come together. I think Carlyle is focused on what he needs to do for his future, but also for the success of our football team and I think he’s demonstrated that with what he’s done this season.
Q. I’m wondering if you can share some of your impressions of Julius Jones, when you’re watching him on film and watching him from the opposing sideline, and if you can tell us what he’s done. Has the comeback exceeded your expectations or surprised you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Obviously I don’t think I expected him to have three 200-yard games and have a 260-yard game. Being able to perform at that high a level has been a very pleasant surprise.
Did I think he was good? Yes. Did I think he was very good? Yes. I felt like what we need to do was have him be, once again, accepted into the family, which was done very quickly by the manner in which he came back and by the manner in which he kept contact with the football team when he was away. I think it was last season there were numerous occasions he was back watching games and spending time with his buddies. I think by doing those little things it kept him close with his teammates. So when he did return, he was welcomed into the family once again.
Q. It seems like a symbiotic relationship between Julius Jones and the offensive line. Obviously each needs to succeed for the other to succeed, how much energy and inspiration has the offensive line drawn from Julius and how much of that aided their improvement?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is a tremendous plus for them in terms of, it just raises the energy bar to just a fantastic and unbelievable level. Because when you see a guy that does almost what you call magical things down the field, he eludes a guy, he runs through a tackle, he keeps his balance when other people would go down. It makes you want to block much more determined. I think our guys have done that and that’s why I think you see a great relationship between Julius and our offensive line. They want him to have success and he wants to do things because they want the team to have success.
Q. Obviously when a guy runs for 262 yards, that’s a good sign, but had you seen any signs in the first couple of games that Julius Jones was on the cusp of breaking out and giving you some big effort?
COACH WILLINGHAM:Well, I don’t know if I saw that, but I think I saw that he was ready to play and perform well. I don’t think I could tell you that I saw a record-setting performance at that time because I think there was so much that was trying to take place around him and so much learning that was taking place around him. So I think in time all of those things worked their way through.
Q. Can you talk about Julius Jones’ evolution as a leader, for those of us who covered him a couple of years ago, he’s always been a quieter type of guy, but it seems like he started to command more of a leadership role this year.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the battle with the circumstances that he was faced and his ability to conquer those circumstances set a wonderful precedent for a football team is terms of a guy having courage, in terms of a guy fighting through difficult times. Because of that, I don’t think he had to say a lot. It was just his actions that spoke and I think he’s continued to be fairly quiet, but been very timely in what he says to his football team.
Q. How much harder do you think it is now considering your strength of schedule and your academic standards being raised so high to compete for a National Championship than it was in ’88, the last time Notre Dame won one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That would be very difficult for me to evaluate because I don’t have that experience of being here at that time. I have the experience of being at another school at the academic standards were very high also. It just makes your pool that much more smaller, but you still can go out and do things, you still can go out and be successful.
Q. In terms of the strength of schedule, even with great recruits and great recruiting classes, it does wear any team down during the course of a year; wouldn’t you agree with that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think when you play great teams, there’s no question that your chance of losing or your chance of not being successful comes but it’s a risk well taken because I think when you have success on that type of schedule, it naturally places you at the top of the country.
Q. Can you talk about the aspect of preparing to play a game in the Carrier Dome? I’m sure you guys don’t see a lot of Domes along the way but can you give some thoughts on your counterpart, Paul Pasqualoni, and your impressions of him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Let me start with Paul first. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Paul on different American Football Coaches Association boards and he has come across as a coach that has the best interests of collegiate football in mind, and to me that is very impressive. Because you often get the feeling that some often think of themselves as just their program, but he has the bigger picture at heart and that is refreshing.
While in Minnesota, having played in the Metrodome, you recognize that the Dome has certain qualities that are different than your outdoor stadiums, and the primary thing that you have to deal with will be the noise factor. And that’s something that I don’t think we can simulate, but we will try our best to have some preparation for that. Usually in some domes there may be different air currents that you might have to deal with, but something that significant should not affect the overall play of the game.
Q. Would you just talk about Justin Tuck, battling through injuries, as he’s had a nagging shoulder for most of the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you mentioned the shoulder and it has been something that has been creating a little bit of a struggle in Justin. But he has done a great job in working through that and that’s really what you expect out of your players. You expect them on certain injuries to be able to fight through because the game requires that. He has done that and he has set and achieved some goals for himself in terms of sacks and his overall play that have been quite impressive. And the game that he had Saturday, with four sacks, was just an outstanding effort.
Q. And I guess obviously a lot of credit deserves to be put on Justin Tuck for the production he’s had, how much credit would go to Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell for commanding as much attention inside and at times leaving Justin in the limelight situation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It has not been just Justin Tuck in my opinion, and I’m glad you pointed that out. But he’s been a factor, with Cedric and Darrell and on the other side at some point it was Kyle Budinscak and it’s Victor Abiamiri. But it’s been a team effort up front. And that’s not just a team effort from the players side, but also a team effort from Greg Madison and D.J. Durkin has worked with that group. I think they will do some great things this year.
Q. How different of a player is Justin Tuck from 12 months ago, techniques-wise and skills?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think he is more mature, more focused more determined and more knowledgeable. I think he’s added all of those things as he’s grown through this year.
Q. Talk about the season in general and what’s been the most disappointing aspect of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The most disappointing, of course, is our start. We didn’t get off to a good start. But the most rewarding part has been the way that our guys have hung in there. They have never stopped working. They have never stopped being focused on winning and I think we’ve been fortunate that we’ve done that these last three ballgames and hopefully we can continue to work, and believe in ourselves and teammates and hopefully good things will happen.
Q. Could you comment on Sylvester Croom and him being hired by Mississippi State and what that means in terms of a step forward?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the first thing is, I think you have to take your hat off to Mississippi State for making the hire, No. 1. And No. 2, I send my congratulations to Sylvester because I think he is a quality man, first of all, and also a quality coach.
So their program, I think, has gained a person that will stand for all of the right things and try to do the right things within their program.
Is it a step? Obviously it is a major step because it is a first. And I believe that he will do very well.
Q. I wondered if you could — I’m sure in your profession you’re always trying to learn and grow and stuff. What is maybe the most valuable thing you’ve learned through this season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, most lessons in life are kind of recurring. Sometimes you remember the lessons and sometimes you need to be reminded. In this case, it was probably just to stay the course, continue doing the right things, believe in the people in the manner that we believed in them and eventually good things will happen.
Q. Without having a Bowl game, obviously you’ll be jumping into 2004 a little bit quicker. Maybe what are your objectives going into the off-season for this team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we think we’re going to have to get a lot better. We’ve got to have continued growth and improvement in every area and when you don’t have the opportunity, those extra additional practices to get that done on the field, you have to be creative in how our young people do it on their own. Before we could provide more structure for them in practice and now we have to do it with them being the major focus.